Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 20
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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School Budget Talks Spark Discord

Matthew Hersh

Negotiations that were intended to massage a defeated school budget, making it more palatable for Princeton Borough and Township voters, appear to have initiated somewhat of a standoff between municipal officials and school board representatives.

Individual accounts describing the climate of closed-session discussions held last week to produce a leaner school budget by May 21 suggest failed negotiating tactics, little room for compromise, and officials on all sides left frustrated with the process.

Last month, the Princeton Regional Schools proposed $56 million budget was narrowly defeated in what is generally regarded as a commentary on rising municipal, county, and school tax levies in Princeton. The budget, which passed in the Township 675 to 644, but failed in the Borough 269 to 195, has since been subjected to special municipal committees designed to examine it with the purpose of submitting a revised budget to the office of the Mercer County Superintendent of Schools no later than May 21. The vote marked the first school budget defeat since 1991.

From the outset, officials familiar with the process indicated that those opposed to the budget were likely to be disappointed with any cuts, pointing to a limited portion of the budget that can be reexamined. There is, however, the possibility that the budget could be trimmed by as much as $1.033 million, by shifting some non-programmatic monies around.

A public meeting between those school board representatives, along with select Borough and Township elected officials, was slated to take place last night after Town Topics went to press. At that meeting, the group was expected to field public comment, subsequently drafting a resolution agreeing to a revised budget that would be submitted to the county.

But the days that led up to last night's hearing outlined, to some, the need for a better process.

"Whether you have a child in the school district and you don't want any cuts, or you're worried about your taxes: either way, you're going to have grave concerns about the process," said Borough Councilman Roger Martindell, who was involved in the negotiations last Wednesday.

Other officials taking part in the discussions, according to Mr. Martindell, were Council President Peggy Karcher, Councilman David Goldfarb, Township Deputy Mayor Bernie Miller, Committeeman Lance Liverman, and administrative and finance staff from both municipalities. School board representatives included board president Michael Mostoller, members Alan Hegedus, Walter Bliss, Mia Cahill, and Josh Leinsdorf, and Superintendent Judith Wilson. Peter Martin, the CPA that the Borough and Township agreed to contract with in re-examining the school budget, was also present.

During the meeting, various scenarios were discussed, none of which was to the liking of either side, but the school board eventually suggested cutting the tax levy using approximately $700,000 of unrealized revenue, Mr. Martindell said, with another $300,000 from an as-yet-determined source.

Mr. Martindell, who categorized the process as "arbitrary, unreasonable, and capricious," acknowledged that the negotiation was flawed. "We're coming up with numbers based on nothing: it was like throwing a dart at the dartboard in the dark."

Township Committeeman Lance Liverman, who did not view the process as unfavorably as Mr. Martindell, said most of the municipal officials involved in the negotiations knew that the proposed school board budget was going to be "lean and mean," and echoed earlier accounts questioning the likelihood of making major budgetary cuts. "It's a heated item," he said.

Mr. Liverman was quick to point out that if all sides cannot come to an agreement, the original proposed budget stands.

Township Deputy Mayor Miller could not forecast what would come out of last night's meeting: "we have strong-minded people negotiating here," he said. "It's hard to think what kind of resolution will result. There are too many independent players, and until we sit down around the table and discuss not only what we believe came out of the meeting and what some of the alternatives will be, it's too early to speculate."

A full report of Tuesday's budget meeting will appear in the May 23 edition of Town Topics.

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